Bernie Sanders Faces Skeptical Voters In South Carolina

Bernie Sanders Faces Skeptical Voters In South Carolina

By Arit John, Bloomberg News (TNS)

The big question for Bernie Sanders is no longer whether he can win over white liberals in Iowa and New Hampshire, but whether he can put together a significant coalition of minority voters in a state like South Carolina, where an overwhelming majority of black Democrats are passing on his “political revolution” in favor of Hillary Clinton.

While wins in the first two states in the Democratic nomination race would give Sanders momentum, losses in more diverse states would call into question his ability to re-create the coalition of white liberals, young voters and people of color that elected Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Sanders is still an unknown quantity for many African-Americans in South Carolina, which will hold the South’s first Democratic primary on Feb. 27. Palmetto State voters who have heard of the Vermont senator may like him, but, so far, they know and like Clinton better.

“I haven’t listened a lot to Bernie Sanders, and to me — I don’t think I’d vote for him,” said Jacqueline Owens, a 60-year-old librarian from Irmo, S.C., on Monday at the statehouse, where the three candidates spoke at the King Day at the Dome event celebrating the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. after debating on TV the previous night. “He doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t think he’d be that strong a supporter of black votes and black issues. I’d have to do more research on him, though.”

Or, as Sammie Bacoke, a 72-year-old Army veteran backing Clinton, put it: “I think he’s all right, but I don’t think that he has the qualifications to be president like Secretary of State Clinton.”

Sanders made his case to South Carolina voters on Monday by emphasizing his ties to the civil rights movement and how his platform carries on its themes. Standing on the steps of the statehouse, where the Confederate flag hung until this summer, Sanders asked the crowd of hundreds to remember that King, at the end of his life, was working for the rights of poor people and low-paid workers.

“And I wonder if Dr. King was with us today, what would he say about a nation in which the top one tenth of 1 percent own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent?” Sanders asked. “And what would he say about a nation in which 29 million Americans have no health insurance?”

Sanders’s speech was well-received by the audience, but the crowd was more enthusiastic about Clinton.

“There’s no question that Hillary, at this point, is ahead. You can tell in this crowd,” Rep. Jim Clyburn said on Saturday night after his annual fish fry. “But it’s very clear that he is doing well in this state as he is around the country.” While Sanders’s events are often described as overwhelmingly white, there were several, mostly young, African-American Sanders supporters at the fish fry.

Kyundra Martin, a 17-year-old student, said she likes that Sanders talks about issues like LGBT rights and free college education. Clinton, she said, “tries to hard” to reach out to young voters.

Martin was at the fish fry with Janet Williams, a 51-year-old federal employee from Seneca, S.C., backing Clinton. “I would say not Bernie because he’s new to me,” Williams said, adding that Clinton has already been under the microscope.

Recent polling has shown Sanders trailing Clinton by an average of about 40 points in the state. That deficit is even wider among African-American voters. According to a December CBS/YouGov online poll, Clinton led Sanders 67 percent to 31 percent overall, but for black voters that margin increased to 79 percent to 19 percent.

The Sanders campaign says his numbers have improved since the start of his campaign, just as they have improved in Iowa and New Hampshire. His campaign also notes that candidates have received boosts in later primary states after winning the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary. According to polling averages from RealClearPolitics, Sanders has an almost 7 point advantage over Clinton in New Hampshire and trails her by 4 points in Iowa.

Sanders has six campaign offices, 53 paid staffers and more than 100 part-time community organizers in South Carolina, according to the campaign. They’ve aired ads, done interviews on African-American radio stations, and visited black churches and historically black colleges and universities. During the debate on Sunday, the campaign aired television ads in the state for the first time.

At the state party’s First in the South dinner on Saturday, Sanders focused on black voters, emphasizing his work with Clyburn to include funding for community health centers in the Affordable Care Act, his participation in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and efforts to address felon disenfranchisement, minority vote suppression, and criminal justice system problems.

To make his case in the spin room following Sunday’s debate, Sanders brought in his most high-profile advocates in the black community: former Ohio state Rep. Nina Turner, Georgia state Rep. LaDawn Jones (also his Georgia state director), and Michael Render, better known as Run the Jewels rapper Killer Mike. While they acknowledged that persuading black voters to give Sanders a chance would be a challenge, they emphasized that his platform would help black Americans the most. Render, who posted a popular six-part interview in a barber shop with Sanders last month, rejected the idea that Clinton is doing a better job of reaching out to black voters because they favor her in polls.

“What I’m seeing in the African-American community is people waking up. What I’m seeing among black men in particular, who are often left out of the voting conversation, are saying that this is a candidate that I’ll support,” Render said. “So what I’d like to say to pollsters is you’re polling in the wrong places: You need to get in some barber shops and some beauty shops.”

And throughout the weekend, there were black Sanders supporters holding signs, wearing stickers, and cheering their candidate on. One of those supporters was Lillie Hart, a 67-year-old retired social worker and self-described socialist from Columbia, who spent Monday morning handing out flyers and talking to undecided voters for several minutes at a time about Sanders ahead of his King Day speech.

“When I talk to people about Bernie Sanders, I’m talking to people who don’t understand or even know of him, and so I have to explain who he is,” Hart said. But “once you talk to them and tell them what this man has been about all of his life, they start thinking ‘Well, maybe, I’ll have to look at him.’ So I do believe that people are open to changing their mind.”

©2016 Bloomberg News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) speaks at The Iowa Brown and Black Forum at Drake University in Des Moines, IA, January 11, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein 


4 Issues To Watch When Clinton And Sanders Debate Next Week

4 Issues To Watch When Clinton And Sanders Debate Next Week

By Arit John, Bloomberg News (TNS)

While next Tuesday’s first Democratic presidential debate will probably lack the name calling and sharp jabs of the Republican face-offs, there’s still potential for strong disagreements between the party’s leading contenders.

As the campaign progresses, differences between Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have become increasingly clear. Sanders wants to break up the big banks, Clinton does not. Clinton has called for a no-fly zone over Syria, but Sanders has sided with President Barack Obama against the idea. Sanders voted for a bill that protected gun manufacturers and sellers from liability after deadly shootings, which Clinton appears willing to use against him.

And on Monday, news that a deal has been reached on the Trans-Pacific Partnership surfaced another point of contrast: While Sanders was quick to condemn the mega-trade deal, Clinton has remained silent.

Here’s a closer look at the differences between the two candidates:


The announcement that the United States, Japan and 10 other Pacific Rim countries reached a final agreement on the controversial Trans Pacific-Partnership trade deal brought immediate condemnation from labor unions, the environmental movement and Sanders, an opponent of trade deals throughout his time in public office. In a statement, the senator said he is “disappointed but not surprised by the decision to move forward on the disastrous” agreement and promised to do all he can in the Senate to defeat it.

Clinton’s reaction has been silence. Opposing the trade deal puts her at odds with her former boss, Obama. Supporting it, however, might damage her support among unions, who oppose the deal. As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka wrote in a statement, “rushing through a bad deal will not bring economic stability to working families.”


Last week Clinton joined a handful of Republican presidential candidates who have called for a no-fly zone over Syria. “I personally would be advocating now for a no-fly zone and humanitarian corridors to try to stop the carnage on the ground and from the air,” Clinton told Boston’s WHDH-TV. Supporters of the no-fly zone say it would protect Syrian civilians from bombs being dropped by Syrian President Bashar Assad. But critics, including Sanders, disagree. Enforcing the no-fly zone “could get us more deeply involved in that horrible civil war and lead to a never-ending U.S. entanglement in that region,” Sanders said in a statement Saturday.

The divide highlights one of the issues that separates Clinton from the rest of the Democratic field: She tends to take a harder line on international affairs than most of her competitors. Last year, in an August interview with The Atlantic, Clinton said the failure to arm moderate Syrian rebels left a power vacuum for the Islamic State to fill. The interview reopened the debate begun in her 2008 race for the Democratic presidential nomination against Obama over whether Clinton is too hawkish for Democrats. Meanwhile, when the Senate voted to arm moderate rebels in September 2014, Sanders was one of 22 senators to vote against the measure.


In reaction to last week’s deadly school shooting in Oregon, Clinton called for the repeal of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which shields gun manufacturers and sellers from legal liability when their products are used to commit crimes. This is one issue on which Clinton is more in line with the Democratic Party’s liberal base than Sanders. In 2005, Clinton voted against protecting gun makers and sellers from legal liability; Sanders voted in favor. While Sanders has voted for gun control measures like banning semiautomatic assault weapons and mandating instant background checks, his vote to protect gun makers and sellers has not gone over well with his base, nor has his vote against the 1993 Brady bill, which mandated a five-day waiting period on gun purchases.

In July, Sanders was questioned over his vote for the law that Clinton wants repealed after survivors of the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting tried to sue ammunition manufacturers — their lawsuit was dismissed partially due to the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which Sanders voted for. Sanders said that a gun manufacturer is no more responsible for a gun murder than a hammer company would be if someone used their hammer as a murder weapon.


While Sanders often says that banks that are too big to fail are too big to exist, Clinton has been careful not to lay the blame for the economic crisis on the doorsteps of large financial institutions. In July, Sanders co-sponsored a bill to reinstate Glass-Steagall, the law that kept commercial and investment banks separate. That same week Alan Blinder, an economist advising Clinton’s campaign, told reporters that renewing Glass-Steagall would not be part of her economic platform.

During a press conference soon after he co-sponsored the bill, Sanders declined to criticize Clinton’s views, and told reporters they would have to ask her what she supports. “Now you’ll have to ask Hillary Clinton about her view of whether she thinks we should break up these large financial institutions,” he said. “And you’ll have to ask for her views about whether we should re-establish Glass-Steagall.”

Next week, he might get the chance to ask her himself.

Photo: Round one starts Oct. 13. DonkeyHotey/Flickr

What If Martin O’Malley Or Bernie Sanders Disobey The DNC On Debates?

What If Martin O’Malley Or Bernie Sanders Disobey The DNC On Debates?

By Arit John, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — When the Democratic National Committee announced in May that it would sanction six primary debates in 2016, and planned to punish candidates who went to unsanctioned events, the party said the schedule was “consistent with the precedent set by the DNC during the 2004 and 2008 cycles.”

In both of those cycles the DNC also only sanctioned six debates. But the 2004 and 2008 elections were also filled with dozens of unsanctioned ones that started at least six months earlier than the DNC plans to start its debate season this year, on Oct. 13.

That frenzy is what the committee is trying to prevent from happening this year, and it’s what lower-ranking candidates, who would benefit from more chances to appear in nationally televised debates on the same stage as front-runner Hillary Clinton, are rebelling against. Sen. Bernie Sanders said he’s “disappointed” with the schedule, while former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley called it “unprecedented” and “outrageous.”

Maybe the solution for lower-polling candidates isn’t to push the DNC to sanction more debates, says Kathleen Jamieson, a University of Pennsylvania professor of communications who has studied and written about presidential debates and political rhetoric. “O’Malley’s attacking the wrong villain,” Jamieson said. “If anyone wants to stand up and sponsor a debate and the candidates want to go to it, you’ll have a debate that the DNC hasn’t sanctioned.”

For example, if a Spanish-language television network said it was going to host two debates, one for Democrats and one for Republicans, Jamieson says it is likely the candidates would ignore the rules set by their committees. “They would accept and go, regardless of whether the RNC and DNC said yes or no, because they want to reach the Hispanic vote,” she said.

O’Malley appears to be hinting he would do just that. In a memo released Tuesday, O’Malley legal counsel Joe Sandler challenged the DNC’s exclusion rule, which says that if a candidate attends an unsanctioned debate, they will be barred from future DNC primary debates. The rule is “legally unenforceable,” Sandler said, and if candidates attended an unsanctioned debate, “it is highly unlikely that any of those sponsors of the sanctioned debates would ultimately be willing to enforce that ‘exclusivity’ requirement.”

Alan Schroeder, a journalism professor at Northeastern University and the author of Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High-Risk TV, agrees, noting that on the Republican side, it has been the debate hosts, not the Republican National Committee, that set the rules for the debates. “The DNC may threaten to keep somebody out of a future debate, but it isn’t their invitation,” he said.

Of course, the major appeal of any debate — for the trailing candidates and the hypothetical media entity that would host the debate — is a chance to the challengers share the stage (and possibly upstage) Clinton. But the front-runner made it clear this week, however, that she’ll only attend events sanctioned by the DNC.

In response to O’Malley’s memo, the DNC has said that it worked with the debate hosts to set the rules, including the exclusivity rule. “We agreed with the networks on a standardized criteria across all debates,” DNC spokesperson Miryam Lipper told MSNBC.

As for whether there’s a need for more debates, another DNC spokesperson, Holly Shulman, said last week that six debates offered “plenty” of opportunity:

“We’re thrilled to hear that Governor O’Malley is eager to participate in our debates. We believe that six debates will give plenty of opportunity for the candidates to be seen side- by-side. I’m sure there will be lots of other forums for the candidates to make their case to voters, and that they will make the most out of every opportunity.”

Schroeder says Democratic groups could also organize an event similar to the Voters First Forum — an event for Republican candidates in Manchester, N.H., on Aug. 3 that several media organizations staged in response to the criteria for the first official debate, which placed heavy emphasis on national poll standings.

“It wasn’t a debate and they called it a forum specifically to avoid pissing off the RNC, but it got all the candidates on the stage together at the same time,” Schroeder said. “So it’s conceivable that the Democrats could come up with an equivalent to that.”

Attending a forum wouldn’t break the DNC’s sanctioned debates rule, and in fact the party has invited all of the candidates to speak at its summer meeting in Minneapolis at the end of the month. Asked whether O’Malley would attend such a forum, spokeswoman Haley Morris said the campaign is focused on debates. The Sanders campaign did not respond to a request for comment. Why six?

Depending on who you ask, the DNC’s exclusivity requirement is either an effort to prevent the debate season from overwhelming candidates and voters, or an attempt to protect Clinton.

When debates are too frequent “it begins to overwhelm the processes, becomes all consuming for campaigns and becomes less impactful for voters,” DNC communications director Mo Elleithee told The Guardian in May.

During the 2008 cycle, not all the candidates were pleased with the dozen-plus debates that happened before the Iowa caucuses. As Roger Simon wrote in Politico in February 2007, Barack Obama and Clinton considered declining some of the many debate and forum invitations they were receiving. Major candidates were unhappy with the 2004 schedule, too. “The debates not only screwed up their schedules, but took a ton of prep time that could have been better spent going out and actually meeting voters,” Simon wrote.

Lower-polling candidates see different motives. The DNC is “stacking the deck in favor of a chosen candidate,” said O’Malley senior strategist Bill Hyers in an e-mail to supporters last week.

“It seems, and I emphasize the words seems, but it seems to be a procedure in which the objective is to protect the front- runner,” Schroeder said. “I think that O’Malley and Bernie Sanders and the others have every reason to be upset about this exclusivity rule.”

Photo: It doesn’t behoove Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley to stick to the rules. (Canada 2020/Flickr)

Inside The Grassroots Group That Wants America To ‘Feel The Bern’

Inside The Grassroots Group That Wants America To ‘Feel The Bern’

By Arit John, Bloomberg News (TNS)

NEW YORK — Joseph Beuerlein, a 33-year-old bartender and actor, was looking through the list of groups registered to march in New York City’s Gay Pride Parade when he noticed that Hillary for America would be there, but no Bernie Sanders surrogates. He registered and reached out to People for Bernie, a grassroots group aimed at helping people organize for the Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate, to get some people together.

“They said, ‘How about you organize it?'” Beuerlein said.

About 70 supporters showed up to march in Sunday’s parade, decked out in Bernie shirts, Bernie buttons, and neon-colored workout gear (a play on the “feel the Bern”/”feel the burn” pun the group claims to have popularized), carrying handmade signs with more puns and messages about Sanders’ LGBT support.

The parade was a good example of the role People for Bernie hopes to play in the 2016 election, where Sanders is waging a long-shot bid to wrest the Democratic nomination from Hillary Rodham Clinton. The group’s presence at the parade didn’t raise any money for the candidate, but it raised awareness and gave people a chance to get involved and meet other supporters. Sanders’ name was announced to a small crowd of onlookers still watching the parade at 6 p.m. when the group started marching down Fifth Avenue. Organizers passed out lollipops with a QR code leading to Sanders’ website.

By design, that’s how People for Bernie operates. The group’s goal is to help people who are new to politics, people who support Sanders but don’t know how to help the campaign, and put them in a place where they can lead.

“We call ourselves a permission machine,” said founder Charles Lenchner. “Usually in politics someone says, ‘Oh, we should do this,’ and then they look for someone to say that that’s a good idea…. People come to us with ideas and our approach is almost always, ‘Yes, how can we help?'”

While Lenchner says he is in contact with the Sanders campaign — they provided buttons and posters for the event, and have asked the group to promote events such as the candidate’s Wednesday night rally in Madison, Wisconsin — People for Bernie sees itself as a resource for activists the campaign might not have the bandwidth to work with.

“They don’t have staff; they’re not going to set up operations in all 50 states; they’re going to run a smaller, less well-funded campaign than say Hillary Clinton,” he said. “So what are we going to do to make it easier for people to jump in?”

The Sanders campaign didn’t have an immediate comment on the group’s efforts, but referred to a June 22 statement in which Sanders “welcomed growing support for his candidacy from” former supporters of a presidential run by Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, which finally fizzled last month when it became clear Warren was not going to jump in.

The Origins of #FeeltheBern

Before there was People for Bernie, there was Ready for Warren, and before Ready for Warren, there was Occupy Wall Street. Lenchner was heavily involved in the protest effort to challenge income inequality. In 2013, joined by several other Occupy veterans, he co-founded Ready for Warren with Erica Sagrans, who worked on President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign. Ready for Warren was, in his words, an “intervention,” an effort to force a debate on progressives’ issues in the 2016 debate.

“In 2013, some of us figured out that it looked like Hillary Clinton was cruising toward a Democratic Party nomination without there being any sort of significant fight for the progressive wing of the party,” Lenchner said.

People for Bernie started taking shape a few months before Sanders announced he was running on April 30, as activists started realizing that Warren was out and Sanders was in. The group formally launched on the day of Sanders’ announcement outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington. They launched dozens of niche “for Bernie” Twitter accounts (examples: @Women4Bernie, @LGBT4Bernie and @Blacks4Bernie), which have since multiplied, and the hashtag #FeeltheBern. Lenchner joked that he couldn’t say who came up with it.

“I can’t answer that without causing intense rivalries inside the team,” he said. “I’ll just say that it was definitely us, and we chose that hashtag, we tested it, we saw that it was doing well, so we used networking and social media strategies in order to popularize it.”

It’s hard to say how much of a dent the group is making. Katherine Brezler, a 33-year-old teacher and the administrator of the group’s social media accounts, said the #FeeltheBern hashtag had earned 2.5 million impressions on Twitter in June, but added that they measure success in more anecdotal ways.

“My mom has eight Twitter followers, and she tweets about Feel the Bern. You have older, retired people taking to Twitter and Facebook. That is a huge metric for us also,” she said.

Deray McKesson, an activist and Twitter user well known for his involvement with the Black Lives Matter movement, has mentioned Sanders, and rapper Killer Mike endorsed Sanders this week, Brezler said, though it’s not clear how much People for Bernie had to do with those gestures.

“We feel the skepticism too, but you know, everywhere he goes he’s packing rooms,” she said.

Photo: Jen Wegmann-Gabb via Flicker

Trevor Noah Is About To Explode America’s Attitudes About Africa And Our Place In The World

Trevor Noah Is About To Explode America’s Attitudes About Africa And Our Place In The World

By Arit John, Bloomberg News (TNS)

In his 2012 comedy special That’s Racist, one of Trevor Noah’s funniest stories is about AIDS, and other dumb questions Americans ask Africans. “The best ignorant conversation I had was in California, in a place called Malibu,” he tells the South African audience. There, at the beach, he met a California girl whose questions get more embarrassing as the joke goes on, from “how did you get to America?” to “do you guys have waves in Africa?” to “have you ever had AIDS?”

“And I know as a child of a continent that’s ravaged by this disease it’s my job, it’s my duty to educate people when I met them. It really is a part of who I am,” Noah says. “But you know when you look at someone in their eyes, and there’s no hope.”

When it was announced Monday that Noah would be the next host of The Daily Show, replacing Jon Stewart, the reaction outside of the comedy world was a collective “Who?” (Entertainment Weekly, Mediaite, CNN, and The Washington Post all have “Who is Trevor Noah?” stories.) And that leads to questions about what kind of humor he’ll bring to the anchor chair.

Based on his three stints on The Daily Show so far, Noah is an equal opportunity critic. Whereas Stewart’s bread and butter is calling out Fox News hypocrisy, Noah has an ability to use humor to remind Americans that they don’t care enough about the world around them, and that even the most liberal Americans have a very one-dimensional view of Africa.

Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche calls that one-dimensional view the “single story” narrative — the idea among Westerners that all Africans across its many countries, have the same disease and war narrative. When W. Kamau Bell, the host of the now-canceled late night comedy show that deals with race on FXX, introduced Noah ahead of a 2013 interview, he put it this way: “Now when most Americans think of South Africa they think of Blood Diamonds and racism, not comedy.”

But it’s Noah’s earlier stuff that’s exciting, especially for people who have given up on explaining to Americans why their parents didn’t grow up with elephants roaming through their the front lawns.

Noah has a rotation of cringe-worthy encounters with Americans that he shares with his South African audience in That’s Racist: There was the surfer girl, then the man who, upon realizing that Noah was from South Africa said, “I got a friend in Ghana … you know him?” Then there was the Mexican man in New York who said he didn’t look African, but like he “was raised in the shade.”

The phrase “you don’t look African” stuck with him. “You get it everywhere in America, you start to realize the perception people have of Africa. It’s very one-dimensional,” he says. “They think Africa is just a dust basin filled with, like, starving people covered in flies. They don’t even think we have airports, they think it’s just airplanes landing in the bush being caught by a thousand black guys.”

Those moments, all from That’s Racist, were for a South African audience. But even in explaining basic facts of life for South Africans Noahtouches on common misconceptions and stereotypes. There are 11 languages spoken in South Africa, and Noah speaks six of them, as he explained during his 2013 Letterman appearance:

“I’m used to learning languages. I speak six languages from South Africa. Funny enough, I never learned my parents’ languages growing up, I started learning those now. My mother’s language is Xhosa, that’s the language with the clicks and my father’s Swiss German and I never learned German. And so I’m learning both, for different reasons. Xhosa because, come on, why would you not want to speak a language with clicks?”

Then he says something in Xhosa that “sounds like Chinese New Year’s in your mouth,” he says. That’s killing two stereotypes — the clicking language and the idea that there’s just one generic African language — with one joke.And now he’s going to tell whole skeins of them.

(c)2015 Bloomberg News, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Screenshot via Comedy Central

Citizens United Files New Lawsuit Seeking State Department Watchdog Documents

Citizens United Files New Lawsuit Seeking State Department Watchdog Documents

By Arit John, Bloomberg News (TNS)

Citizens United filed its fourth lawsuit against the State Department on Thursday, this time seeking documents related to the agency’s Office of Inspector General during former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s tenure.

In the suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the conservative advocacy group complains that the State Department has not responded to two of its Freedom of Information Act requests in more than six months, beyond acknowledging receiving them. The statutory requirement is 20 business days.

The lawsuit follows the revelation that Clinton exclusively used a personal email account during her time as secretary of state. In December, her office sent 55,000 emails to the department, which the agency is now sorting through.

On September 16, the conservative advocacy group filed two FOIA requests seeking emails between Clinton, her allies, assistants, and other State Department officials on the decision to keep Harold K. Geisel as acting Inspector General and anything related to a February 2013 inspector general’s report that found agency investigators vulnerable to “undue influence” from senior officials.

The State Department’s policy is not to comment on ongoing litigation, spokesman Alec Gerlach said. The department has said in the past that it receives thousands of FOIA requests a year, and tries to respond to them in the order they are received.

“We expect to get all of the documents that we request, which will be very fascinating reading to see exactly what type of influence, if any, was being put on the Inspector General,” David Bossie, the president and chairman of Citizens United, told Bloomberg.

Over the last month, Citizens United has filed lawsuits seeking documents from Clinton’s tenure at State, including her flight manifests, correspondence between top Clinton aides and the Clinton Foundation, and more information on her foreign trips. On March 13 a federal judge ruled in favor of Citizens United and gave the State Department a timeline for releasing Clinton’s flight manifests.

In total, Citizens United officials said they have 18 unanswered FOIA requests, all of which are research for its upcoming sequel to 2008’s “Hillary the Movie,” which the group hopes to release sometime next year.

Bossie — known as a “partisan hit man” to some on the left, and a hero to some on the right — has focused on the Clintons since Bill Clinton’s early days in the White House. In the early 1990s, he was the political director for Citizens United and went on to become the House Oversight Committee’s chief investigator, working for Republicans during Bill Clinton’s time in office. He resigned under pressure in 1998.

The goal of this latest lawsuit is to see how much influence Clinton and her team had over the State Department Office of Inspector General, Bossie said.

The first FOIA in the latest complaint is based on an April 2011 Washington Post article on the vacancy in the top job at the Office of the Inspector General. Geisel, a former ambassador, was serving as acting inspector general. The Post article reported that:

One high-ranking official familiar with the selection process said the State Department’s current leadership had opposed filling the top slot because it prefers the office to remain under Geisel’s supervision.

The FOIA requests any correspondence between Clinton and a list of her aides and agency officials related to Geisel and the search for a permanent inspector general nominee.

The second FOIA request involves a February 2013 report from the Office of Inspector General, released in response to an internal 2012 memo that accused the agency’s Diplomatic Security Service of backing off investigations at the request of senior State Department officials. The report found that the Special Investigations Division “lack(ed) a firewall” to prevent agency officials “from exercising undue influence in particular cases.”

In June 2013, whistleblower Aurelia Fedenisn gave CBS News the 2012 memo listing eight examples of such cases. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said at the time that “all cases mentioned in the CBS report were thoroughly investigated or under investigation.”

The second FOIA request in Thursday’s lawsuit requests any emails sent to or from Clinton and a team of allies and aides (including Cheryl Mills, Huma Abedin, and Jennemaire E. Smith) on the initial February 2013 report.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

One More Question On Hillary Clinton Emails: Where Was The Watchdog?

One More Question On Hillary Clinton Emails: Where Was The Watchdog?

By Arit John, Bloomberg News (TNS)

One of the many unanswered questions regarding the Hillary Clinton email story has been: Whose job was it to raise and address concerns about her exclusive use of a private account? According to open government advocates, it would have been the agency’s permanent, independent Inspector General — someone nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate — if such a person had existed.

For five years, including all of Clinton’s time as secretary, the State Department’s Office of Inspector General never had a confirmed inspector. Instead, it was led by acting inspector Harold W. Geisel, a former ambassador who was accused of being too cozy to agency leadership by transparency groups like the Project on Government Oversight. Throughout the first half of President Barack Obama’s first term, the absence of a State Department Inspector General while internal scandals and Benghazi rocked the department drew bipartisan criticism.

“For no one to raise concerns, it’s almost impossible to believe,” said Danielle Brian, the executive director for POGO.

For years POGO has been highlighting “the frequency and the longevity of vacancies in Inspectors General offices,” as Brian put it. She added that while it was ironic that the Clinton story broke so close to last week’s Sunshine Week — a time for open government advocates to raise awareness of transparency issues — it was also an opportunity to highlight the importance of why open government issues like Inspectors General vacancies.

“It seems like a really boring issue, but this is why it’s not,” Brian said. “These are people who…were in a position to have received tips or created a sense of there being accountability on these matters. But those vacancies scream essentially that there’s nobody who’s really interested in making sure that someone is a junkyard dog in those agencies, looking for these kinds of problems.”

The Inspector General Act of 1978 established independent watchdog offices for every major federal agency, led by an official nominated either by the president or the agency. There are currently 11 inspector general positions open — either because Obama or the agency have yet to nominate anyone or because a presidential nominee has yet to be confirmed by Congress.

Some positions have gone without nominees for years — according to a database maintained by POGO, the Department of Interior hasn’t had a permanent inspector or presidential nominee, since early 2009; the Agency for International Development’s OIG hasn’t had a leader or presidential nominee since 2011. The National Archives and Records Administration hasn’t had an inspector since September 2012, when Inspector General Paul Brachfield was put on administrative leave while being investigated for racial and sexual comments.

The State Department’s permanent inspectors haven’t been above reproach — in 2007 then-IG Howard J. Krongard resigned over allegations that he had impeded investigations into Blackwater and corruption in Iraq — but the work of vetted and confirmed officials carry more weight. In a 2011 report, the Government Accountability Office called on the State Department to address concerns regarding its independence, writing that “the appointment of management and Foreign Service officials to head the State OIG in an acting capacity for extended periods of time is not consistent with professional standards for independence.”

In other words, if you wanted to inspire confidence in whistleblowers and others that the State Department is being held accountable by an independent official, that official shouldn’t be a former State Department official.

By September 2013, several months after Clinton left State, the department finally had a permanent inspector, and the department recently released a report documenting how few emails the State Department has saved for government records. But the long-time gap, as well as the ones at other agencies, raises questions about what other problems aren’t being investigated.

“If there was any confidence that those were robust office(s) then people within the agency or others would have turned to them,” Brian said. “I have to believe that at some point we’ll find out that there were people who were saying ‘Why am I getting this weird email from what should obviously be'”

Photo: Niu Xiaolei/Xinhua/Sipa via USA/TNS

Report: Obama Administration Worse Than Ever On Freedom Of Information Requests

Report: Obama Administration Worse Than Ever On Freedom Of Information Requests

By Arit John, Bloomberg News (TNS)

The Obama administration continued its less than stellar transparency record in 2014, breaking the previous year’s record for denying and censoring requests under the Freedom of Information Act, according to a new analysis of the administration’s FOIA data by the Associated Press.

The report comes in the midst of Sunshine Week, which raises awareness of open government issues like compliance with the Freedom of Information Act. The White House has already faced some criticism this week for formalizing a rule from the Bush administration that exempts the White House’s Office of Administration from FOIA requests.

According to the AP, the government “took longer to turn over files when it provided any, said more regularly that it couldn’t find documents, and refused a record number of times to turn over files quickly that might be especially newsworthy.” A third of the government’s decisions to withhold documents violated the Freedom of Information Act, the news organization said.

This is the second report this week to shine a light on the government’s transparency under FOIA. A Tuesday report from the Center for Effective Government, an open government advocacy group, analyzed 15 major agencies and found that most received unsatisfactory marks when it comes to processing requests, maintaining its disclosure rules, and updating its FOIA websites.

The State Department, currently in the news over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s exclusive use of a private e-mail account, scored significantly worse than any other agency. It only processed 23 percent of all requests and took, on average, 540 days to fill simple FOIA requests; the law dictates that it should take 20 days.

The Obama administration — often mocked for its promise that it would be the most transparent administration in history — said that in 91 percent of cases the government released all or part of the documents requested. “We actually do have a lot to brag about when it comes to our responsiveness to Freedom of Information Act requests,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.

But the AP said the 91 percent figure doesn’t include instances where the document was lost, when the requester couldn’t or wouldn’t pay for copies, or when the document request was “determined to be improper under the law,” and is lower than any other year Obama has been in office.

Photo: President Barack Obama signs the Department of Homeland Security funding bill in the Oval Office of the White House on Wednesday, March 4, 2015, in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Tom Cotton’s Diplomacy Is Working Out Pretty Well For Tom Cotton

Tom Cotton’s Diplomacy Is Working Out Pretty Well For Tom Cotton

By Arit John, Bloomberg News (TNS)

Two years ago next month, Politico wondered whether Tom Cotton, then a Republican representative from Arkansas, was the “last, best hope for the GOP hawks.”

Now two months into his first term in the Senate, the Iraq and Afghanistan veteran is doing his best to live up to that hype, having persuaded 46 senators to sign on to a letter that seeks to undermine the administration’s ongoing negotiations with Iran.

For the GOP as a whole, however, the letter has the potential to hurt its short-term goal of getting Democrats to sign on to a bill to mandate congressional approval of any Iran deal brokered by the Obama administration, and also threatens the long-term goal of gaining international support for sanctions if the deal falls through. But for Cotton, the exercise and its resulting publicity has proved that he and his hawkish foreign policy goals — which include regime change in Iran and the threat of military force — are worthy of attention.

The Wall Street Journal called the letter and its media cycle “a kind of Senate coming-out party” for Cotton, who has done several TV appearances in the last two days. Hunter Schwarz at The Washington Post said he’s the “star” of the class of 2015, and compared him to another freshman senator who made a name for himself with viral moments (like when Cotton said Guantanamo prisoners could “rot in hell”), Senator Ted Cruz. “Cruz’s tactics won him fans and foes, but today, he’s the only Senate class of 2013 member considering a presidential run,” Schwarz wrote.

Cruz, along with a host of other presidential hopefuls, including Senators Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Lindsey Graham, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and former Texas Governor Rick Perry have all given their support to Cotton’s letter.

The benefits of the letter strategy aren’t as clear for the rest of the GOP. Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic argued that the letter may give Iran an excuse to abandon the talks and blame the U.S., which would hurt America’s case for strong sanctions within the international community. “(I)f America’s partners — particularly those in Asia — come to believe that it was the U.S., rather than the Iranian leadership, that subverted the talks, the cause of invigorated sanctions will be damaged, possibly grievously,” Goldberg wrote.

That may already be coming to pass. On Tuesday Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the same minister who called the Cotton letter a “propaganda ploy,” told a group of clerics that, “This kind of letter is unprecedented and undiplomatic. In truth, it told us that we cannot trust the United States,” Agence France-Presse reported.

The letter also undermines efforts within the Senate to pass a bipartisan bill by Senator Bob Corker that would require Congress to review and approve or disapprove any Iran deal. Corker, one of the seven GOP senators who didn’t sign Cotton’s letter, said he didn’t think it would be “constructive” to add his name, given his goal of getting a veto-proof 67 votes on his bill. Some of his Republican co-sponsors, including John McCain, Graham, Rubio and Paul, disagreed and signed the Cotton letter. Meanwhile, getting to 67 requires Democratic support, and some are arguing that this makes it easier for Democrats to side with the administration.

Cotton himself hasn’t gotten off scot-free. Andrew C. McCarthy at The National Review argued that while the letter is “a step in the right direction” it “is unfortunate in a couple of respects.” Specifically, it said the Senate ratifies treaties when it does not, an embarrassing error for a constitutional lawyer. McCarthy also argued, it’s “gratingly grandiose” for members of Congress to say they’ll be around for decades.

But the more widespread argument — that Cotton and the other 46 senators are traitors — died out pretty quickly. Constitutional law experts pointed out that politically and legally the White House doesn’t have a case to accuse the senators of treason. Peter Beinart at The Atlantic said that while he didn’t support the letter, calling Cotton a traitor was “left-wing Cheneyism.”

Brian Beutler at the left-leaning The New Republic argued that the problem with the letter wasn’t its method of delivery, but the agenda of the person responsible for it. “What makes Cotton reckless isn’t so much that he’s willing to go to extraordinary lengths to achieve his purpose. It’s that his purpose is extremely unwise,” he wrote.

For Cotton, an ambitious young politician who probably has his sights set beyond the Senate, the Iran letter has only reminded people — his fans and his detractors — that he makes a decent chunk of his colleagues look dovish by comparison.

“Pick a topic — Syria, Iran, Russia, ISIS, drones, NSA snooping — and Cotton can be found at the hawkish outer edge of the debate, demanding a continuation or escalation of the Cheney line more consistently and vociferously than nearly any of his peers,” David Ramsey, an Arkansas journalist, wrote in The New Republic in January.

At the time Cotton had only been in in Congress a few days, but Ramsey was arguing that Cotton could blow up the 2016 GOP primary and force the party to decide how aggressive it wants its foreign policy to be. On Iran, the GOP seems ready to follow Cotton, who once said “the surest way to preserve the peace, and to prevent war, is to be prepared for war.”

Photo: U.S. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and former Ambassador John Bolton speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Does The Supreme Court Care That Americans Support Gay Marriage?

Does The Supreme Court Care That Americans Support Gay Marriage?

By Arit John, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — As Noah Rothman of the conservative blog Hot Air put it Friday, polls show that “gay marriage is so popular that even Republicans are coming around.” A new CNN/ORC poll found that 63 percent of Americans side with gay and lesbian couples on their constitutional right to marry. That’s up from 49 percent in August 2010. Even 42 percent of Republicans and 43 percent of conservatives said they agree gays and lesbians should be permitted to wed.

“Fortunately for the stability of the republic, the United States Supreme Court’s justices do not take public opinion into account when deciding the cases before them,” Rothman wrote. “At least, they’re not supposed to keep public opinion in mind.”

Many political scientists have found a correlation between court decisions and public opinion, particularly in major cases. Although results have been mixed, several researchers have made compelling arguments that the justices are swayed by the will of the American people. They’re just not sure why.

During a forum at George Washington University this month, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia debated public opinion’s influence on them and their colleagues. NPR’s Nina Totenberg asked why the court “has become more and more open to protecting the rights of gay people under the Constitution,” according to The Washington Blade.

Ginsburg said society has changed: “LGBT people who previously hid their sexuality have come out and ended up being people’s friends, relatives, and neighbors. There hasn’t been any major change in which there wasn’t a groundswell among the people before the Supreme Court put its stamp of approval on inclusion in the equality concept of people who were once left out,” she said. (She made similar comments in an interview with Bloomberg this month. “The change in people’s attitudes on that issue has been enormous,” she said. “In recent years, people have said, ‘This is the way I am.’ And others looked around, and we discovered it’s our next-door neighbor — we’re very fond of them. Or it’s our child’s best friend, or even our child. I think that as more and more people came out and said that ‘this is who I am,’ the rest of us recognized that they are one of us.”)

Scalia disagreed. “We don’t know really what the people want,” he said, according to The New York Times. “Do you realize how removed we are from Joe Six-Pack?”

But surveys show public opinion is clear and well- publicized. “I think Scalia’s 100 percent wrong that we can’t know where public opinion is” on gay marriage, said Barry Friedman, a New York University School of Law professor, in an interview. “There’s just tons of polling and information about it at this point.”

In 2009, Friedman published The Will of the People: How Public Opinion Has Influenced the Supreme Court and Shaped the Meaning of the Constitution, a book that explores the correlation between changing public opinion and how the court rules. Friedman followed the major social movements and controversies of the 19th and 20th centuries and found that, over time and in important cases, the court has followed Americans’ will. There have been multiple attempts, using multiple methods, to measure whether public opinion influences the court, Friedman said, “and even though one could find fault with all of them, what’s notable is how frequently across a variety of different methodologies people come to the same conclusion.”

A separate analysis, published in the Journal of Constitutional Law in 2010, found that “when the ‘mood of the public’ is liberal (conservative), the Court is significantly more likely to issue liberal (conservative) decisions. But why is anyone’s guess,” wrote the paper’s authors, Andrew D. Martin of the University of Michigan and Lee Epstein of Northwestern (now of Washington University in St. Louis).

One theory behind the correlation is that the justices sometimes worry about backlash. Court-watchers predict the justices will rule in favor of gay and lesbian couples when they consider a gay-marriage case this year. But according to Friedman, some analysts say one compromise the court might reach, to give states some choice, would be to require states to recognize marriages licensed in other states, but not force them to sanction their own.

“There are some justices on the court, including frankly Justice Ginsburg, who’ve often worried about the court deciding these issues instead of letting society get there on its own,” Friedman said. “And society seems to be getting there on its own, in some places quickly enough.”

Another possible explanation for the influence public opinion has is the social theory that “people with more moderate ideological views are more likely to change their views in response to information about what others think,” Erik Voeten at Washington Monthly wrote in June 2013.

Friedman and Martin agreed that Justice Anthony Kennedy is the key vote.

“I think one would be hard-pressed to see Justice Kennedy choosing to not uphold the right to gay marriage, given the other cases that he’s been instrumental in deciding in the area,” Martin said in an interview. In Kennedy’s opinion in United States v. Windsor, in which the court struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, he described how federal law went against public opinion in New York, which recognized same-sex marriage.

“It seems fair to conclude that, until recent years, many citizens had not even considered the possibility that two persons of the same sex might aspire to occupy the same status and dignity as that of a man and woman in lawful marriage. For marriage between a man and a woman no doubt had been thought of by most people as essential to the very definition of that term and to its role and function throughout the history of civilization. (…) Slowly at first and then in rapid course, the laws of New York came to acknowledge the urgency of this issue for same-sex couples who wanted to affirm their commitment to one another before their children, their family, their friends, and their community.”

But the actual reasonmight not be that complicated. It could be that the same factors that influence the public — family members and neighbors coming out, for example — also sway the justices.
“It’s not like they’re Martians,” Friedman said. “They’re living here on the planet with the rest of us.”

Photo: OZinOH via Flickr